Saving souls

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Ngo Thi Kim Cuc with some prized examples of her enormous collection

It's a common belief among the ethnic groups of Vietnam's central highlands that every one of their artifacts, however humble or grand, contains a soul.

Everything from a kitchen pot to a stilt house has its own soul, as do the all-important gongs and drums that stimulate and nourish the people on festive days from childhood through adulthood, and the owners of these things are therefore "soul keepers".

If souls can be counted, then Ngo Thi Kim Cuc, 58, and her husband Le Tuan of Buon Me Thuot Town in Dak Lak Province possess more than 3000 souls in their huge and still growing collection of folkloric artifacts gathered over three decades.

These great "soul keepers" divide their collection into three categories: items of daily use like, hunting weapons, dug-out canoe and a cherished K'pan chair, jars; jewelry and costume for young and old of both sexes; and musical instruments.

Many of the items are well over a century old.

Cuc's favorite among the jewelry is a pair of earings made of elephant's tusk that shine like polished gemstones. It took her one year to convince the owner to part with the earrings.

For husband Tuan, a karate master, it's the drums that matter above all, and his passion for the percussive instruments has earned him the nickname "King of Drums" among the ethnic people. So far, Cuc and Tuan have amassed 130 drums, some of them 200 years old and some measuring one-meter across.

Several items in their collection are rare and have never been exhibited at the local museums, such as a 10-meter dugout canoe of the M'Nong people of Ea H'leo District in Dak Lak and a bark jacket worn by elephant hunters in the past.

To obtain the dugout canoe, Cuc paid for two oxen that were ritually sacrificed for the entire community to feast on.

Says Cuc, "As the people believe everything has its own soul, before selling something, even if they no longer use it, they must hold a ceremony to seek permission from their god. If an item to be sold is important and valuable, they even have to slaughter buffalo to treat the whole village."

In cases like these, it's not the artifacts themselves that are costly, it's the feast for the villagers that consumes the cash.

Sometimes, on the other hand, money is not an issue as the owner will only sell to somebody who will treasure the new possession, says Cuc. "To get the earings, I spent one year persuading the reluctant owner to sell."

The Dak Lak native's passion for ethnic culture began when she undertook museum studies at the School of Theory and Practice II in Ho Chi Minh City from 1977 to 1980.

"My classmates asked me so many questions about my hometown. Since then, I've been on a mission to show people the land I come from. I had the idea of opening a museum of Central Highlands culture way back then but didn't know how to make it a reality."

After graduation, Cuc was assigned to Dak Lak Museum, where she worked until 2004. Her job gave her ample opportunity to make field trips and study ethnic culture.

After each trip, she inevitably brought home at least a gift from the locals, like the comb, dry gourd and bracelets that formed the first pieces of her collection.

"Back then the roads and vehicles were not what they are today. It took half or even a full day to walk to a remote village. A woman who worked as hard as any man quickly found favor among the villagers and received so many small gifts from them."

Since then, Cuc, especially with her husband's support after their marriage in 1985, has used all her income to buy cultural artifacts.

Says Tuan, "In the beginning, I knew nothing about this sort of thing. But, seeing my wife's devotion to her collection, I wanted to help, so I read many books and studied, and now I accompany her on every trip."

He oversees several trainees who help the couple enlarge the collection in any way they can; some of them even spend their own money to buy artifacts for Cuc and Tuan.

"Whereas before I was simply being a good husband, now I find myself addicted to the ethnic group culture", says Tuan with a smile.
Back in the eighties and nineties, artifact traders combing the region, as well as collectors like Cuc, purchased a great number of gongs, drums and such at bargain basement prices.

Unlike the traders, Cuc's motives have never been commercial.

"Few artifacts remain in the area, and some can no longer even be found in the villages. These items are invaluable because they tell the history and culture of the ethnic groups. That's why I feel the urge to collect and preserve these things, to preserve the local culture," says Cuc.

Until recently, Cuc was the director of Dak Nong Museum, which is still being built. Once it is open, she says, she will donate some of her collection to the museum while the rest will be kept for later exhibition in her private museum, once it gets built.

The couple had planned to build their own museum, which would feature four long stilt houses of the Bana, Xedang, Ede and M'nong peoples, on a large block of land they owned in Buon Me Thuot.

The idea had to be put on hold last year when the local government resumed the land for a construction project. The one billion dong that Cuc and Tuan received in compensation was not enough to purchase a block of land as big as the one they lost.

For now they are saving up to buy a suitable plot of land and exhibiting part of the collection at their café: Tây Nguyên Điểm hẹn (Central Highlands rendezvous) at 45 Pham Hong Thai Street, Tu An Ward, Buon Me Thuot.

The rest is kept at her friends and relatives' houses.

However, the lack of a proper  place to keep the collection coupled with Vietnam's wet climate has resulted in many of the pieces deteriorating and falling into disrepair. It's a major worry for the couple.

"It's disappointing that, after years of building up this collection, I still cannot find a proper place to display it to the public," Cuc says with a touch of sadness.

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